Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Linguists within the travel industry - the search continues...
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The Independent Travel

Le Pub: that is the name of the place to drink aboard the SeaFrance flagship, Rodin. The French ferry operator chose it to avoid taxing the linguistic abilities of British travellers. How bad are we at communicating with foreigners? After my story last month on languages spoken by the top tour operators, today I investigate airline people.

French may be the original language of aviation (terms from fuselage to cabotage are still widely used), but English is the only universal tongue for air travel. Indeed, aviation is the only industry where it is a truly global language. Every pilot and air-traffic controller, even if they are working in a remote part of Asia or Africa, must be able to converse in English, and even the signage for flight crews is in English. Perhaps that explains why our leading airline bosses are not exactly brilliant linguists.

Sir Richard Branson is dyslexic, which means that learning foreign languages is especially challenging. But the Virgin Atlantic boss tries. When he was awarded an honorary citizenship of the city of Miyakonojo in Japan, he sat up all night learning off by heart a speech in Japanese. You may also remember the occasion in 1996 when his round-the-world balloon crashed in the Algerian desert in the middle of the civil war. He survived the landing, but found himself in a conflict zone. When his team arrived by Russian helicopter gunship to rescue him a few hours later, they discovered him being wined and dined by a local warlord who was clearly enjoying their conversations in pidgin French.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder and largest shareholder of easyJet, is the most impressive: he is fluent in both English and Greek. In contrast, the no-frills airline's new chief executive, Andy Harrison, managed only to claim "je parle un petit peu de français" before reverting to an English plea of mitigation: "By the time you become a chief executive, it's very difficult to learn a new language."

The chief executives of British Airways and Ryanair, both of them Irish, could not be accused of wasting too much time learning to communicate abroad. Repeated requests to Willie Walsh, the boss of BA, drew no response in any tongue. A spokeswoman for the Ryanair chief, Michael O'Leary, says he "speaks only one language: bad language".

A little profanity could have been expected when Mr O'Leary learned that secret filming had been under way in his airline for months. Yet his reaction to Channel 4's Dispatches programme, which revealed lapses in training, was to predict "an enormous boost in sales" as a result of the broadcast. But reader Laura Green will not be contributing.

"The Dispatches programme has made me less likely to fly Ryanair. I already check every other airline before them, as the Ryanair experience is becoming more unpleasant. I have no desire to line Michael O'Leary's pockets after the way he treats his staff and customers, plus the constant flow of offensive comments he's made, often in your newspaper."

David Beeley is annoyed about Ryanair's baggage policy. Next Friday, the airline will start charging for each piece of checked-in luggage. But Mr Beeley has already had a row with Ryanair over combining his baggage allowance with his wife. They turned up at Durham Tees Valley airport with a single case that was 5kg over the individual limit of 15kg. The check-in agent asked for an extra £25. "We were able to avoid the charge by sharing the 'excess' 5kg in our hand luggage," says Mr Beeley. "The airline was trying to charge us for doing the sensible thing and taking one suitcase between two passengers, which reduces the work for them and the risk of loss or damage. All they achieved was to annoy lots of customers who, by use of hand luggage, took the same weight on board."

BAFFLING LANGUAGE from British Airways. In December, the airline cooed about the advantages of Heathrow Terminal 5. From opening day in March 2008, all of its flights "will be based at a single terminal, rather than operating from Terminals 1, 3 and 4, as at present". Great news for anyone who has had to tackle the obstacle course from one terminal to another for a connecting flight.

Three months later, that simple and cohesive arrangement has already fallen apart. The airline revealed in a note at the end of a long press release on its business plan that "flights to Australia and Spain will depart from Terminal 3". So the whole pretext for the shiny new £4bn building - to unite BA's messy multi-terminal operation under one roof - has already fallen apart. Travellers from Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow who need to change planes to reach Sydney, or our favourite sunshine destinations in Spain, face a connection time of 90 minutes - twice as long as expected for BA passengers.

Back in Le Pub, how do the travel industry's communicators shape up in terms of their command of foreign languages? Lyn Hughes, co-founder and editor of Wanderlust magazine, says she can get by in Spanish and avoid arrest and decline unsavoury propositions in, she says, "most" Romance languages.

Last word - in English - to Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet who today writes for us on his adopted city, Melbourne: "I wouldn't claim fluency in any language - apart from perhaps English. I can get by in French, and have studied German and Spanish. I seem to manage OK in Indonesian. I can say yes, no, please, thank you and 'a cold beer, please' in a surprising number of languages. And when all is said and done that's what it's about. I may not speak much Chinese/Urdu/Greek/Hebrew etc - but if you're at a bus station, you're there because you want a bus ticket, you're in a hotel because you want a bed, in a restaurant because you want food."

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